KAITAIA, 40km west of Mangonui, is the Far North’s largest commercial centre, situated near the junction of the two main routes north. It makes a convenient base for some of the best trips to Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach, far preferable to the longer trips from the Bay of Islands. As a farming service town you’d expect there’d be little to detain you, but these days Kaitaia boasts a rather fine museum, built in 2011. If you have your own transport, however, you might want to base yourself at the magnificent beach in nearby Ahipara, to sand-toboggan the giant dunes, surf or explore the old gumfields.
A Maori village already flourished at Kaitaia when the first missionary, Joseph Matthews, came looking for a site in 1832. The protection of the mission encouraged European pastoralists to establish themselves here, but by the 1880s they found themselves swamped by the gum diggers who had come to plunder the underground deposits around Lake Ohia and Ahipara. Many early arrivals were young Croats fleeing tough conditions in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though the only evidence of this is a Serbo-Croat welcome sign at the entrance to town, and a cultural society that holds a traditional dance each year.